Partners (Number 3, 2004)

Spotlight on the District

Conexión Américas was formed in 2002 by three Hispanic leaders to assist the growing Hispanic community in Nashville. According to the 2000 Census, Tennessee has one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the nation, and a majority are undocumented. In just two years, Conexión Américas has become a leading force in helping Hispanic families with their social, economic, and civic integration into the Middle Tennessee community. Making homeownership possible is part of Conexión’s mission.

Launched in 2004, “Puertos Abiertas” or Open Doors Homeownership Program is one of Conexión Américas’ most exciting and successful programs. Homeownership is an important step towards full integration into the community, and providing Hispanic families with the opportunity to purchase a home is a primary focus of the organization. But it is also one of the biggest challenges.

Through this program, Conexión offers homebuyer education classes and generates a large pool of potential homebuyers. The organization has also created pilot programs with two local banks to provide first mortgages to undocumented immigrants. It works closely with the banks to overcome their concerns about risk and to ease barriers to serving undocumented immigrants, including the lack of proper documentation and insufficient credit histories.

With financial support from the Nashville Housing Fund, a private foundation, and a local financial institution, Conexión Américas has established a $1.5 million loan pool for Puertos Abiertas. The loan fund will provide first mortgages and, through the Nashville Housing Fund, access to down payment assistance as well.

To date, 22 families have purchased their first homes through Puertas Abiertas. By year end, the group anticipates that a total of 45 to 50 families will be new homeowners. All of the mortgages closed thus far have been provided through the bank partners. The banks offer terms and rates comparable to other first-time or affordable mortgage products, but they use the individual taxpayer identification number in place of the social security number and accept nontraditional credit histories.

Although the program is still developing, it has already achieved one very important goal—it has demonstrated to banks that a market for mortgages exists in the Hispanic community and has shown how to tap into it. Nationwide, only a handful of financial institutions offer mortgages to undocumented immigrants. What Conexión Américas has accomplished with their partners is not only important for Hispanics in Tennessee but for Hispanics across the country as well.

By Jessica LeVeen Farr, regional community development manager in the Atlanta Fed’s Nashville Branch.

The Sixth District region includes middle and eastern Tennesssee.

Regional strategies for sustainable and equitable development are emerging as a new paradigm in community development. Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) has adopted this model in South Florida by forming a regional office to help nonprofit, neighborhood-based organizations revitalize communities in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, and eventually Broward.

“We think a regional strategy is the way to go,” said Annetta Jenkins, LISC’s senior program director, who will head the new office. “Fewer and fewer are defining themselves by county lines, and it doesn’t make sense for LISC to continue to do so either.”

Since opening an office in Miami two decades ago and another in West Palm Beach in 1991, LISC has provided loans, grants, and technical assistance to help CDCs develop more than 5,000 affordable houses and apartments and nearly 225,000 square feet of commercial and community facilities—usually in struggling neighborhoods where conventional investors were reluctant to do business.

To implement a regional strategy, South Florida LISC will merge the Greater Miami and Palm Beach County offices, though LISC staffers will remain in both places and continue current revitalization projects in each location. The new structure is anticipated to reduce overall operating costs and increase efficiency, while implementing policies and programs that reach beyond traditional jurisdictional lines.

The merger should also improve the distribution of LISC grants, loans, and technical assistance to CDCs throughout South Florida. In addition, the South Florida LISC office will launch a centralized approach to revitalization efforts in Broward County, an area that had previously been beyond the reach of the Greater Miami and West Palm offices.

“A regional LISC program will provide the opportunity to build and expand upon our already established relationships with CDCs, elected officials, funders, and residents,” said Kathy Hoffman, senior vice president of Fleet Private Clients Group. Former chair of Palm Beach County LISC local advisory board, Hoffman will be co-chairing the South Florida LISC regional advisory board with Barbara Romani, vice president of Citibank, Florida.

“Under this new structure, it will be much easier to share innovations,” added Romani, who previously chaired the Greater Miami LISC advisory board.

CDCs have expressed both enthusiasm and concerns about the merger. They look forward to participating with a regional program that mirrors organizational developments in county government and the private sector, but they are concerned that the unique needs of their neighborhoods may now be competing with a much larger market for financial and technical assistance. This will be the regional program’s greatest challenge in the near future as it seeks a smooth transition to the new structure.

This article was written by Ana Cruz-Taura, regional community development director in the Atlanta Fed’s Miami Branch.

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